Cape Town: a culture of complacency?

Last week human rights activist Rhoda Kadalie raised a stink about the abysmal state of the toilets in Cape Town’s City Hall. A contractor was hired in April to renovate them. When she requested a progress report last month senior council officials ignored her so she visited the loos herself. She wrote in Business Day last week:

[I] found shockingly that the contractor had gone AWOL, that the toilet windows were wide open during raging winter weather, that tiles were missing, and pigeon droppings were everywhere. While some toilets and basins were installed, others were just lying about. The necessary tiles and equipment were missing. In brief, the place was in a state of disgusting chaos. After much ado, I managed to trace the person in charge, who reassured me the process would be re-advertised and put out to tender. No one can give us a time frame and there is no way of knowing when the toilets will be ready […] The fact is no supervision took place while the contractors were there, and I was the one to discover that they had disappeared.

It didn’t take very long for the council’s media machine to leap into action. In a statement released last Tuesday, it was quick to point out that a R2 million turnaround strategy had commenced two years ago and included:

Repairs to roof leaks; Repairs to the clock, which has also been automated; Electrical reticulation repairs; Repair of the pipe organ; Minor repairs to the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra back room area; Rewiring of and repairs to chandelier cables; Replacement of lettering on Main Hall chairs; Painting of the first and second floor walls and ceiling; Sanding and varnishing of Press Room; and, Sanding and varnishing of two rooms on the first floor. The foyer has also been painted and the first set of four toilets is currently being upgraded and modernised.

The council said that it hoped “the City Hall should serve as a fully functional amenity” within three years.

While the City Hall is certainly dilapidated, it is ridiculous that it should take a projected total of five years to restore the building to being “fully functional”. As Kadalie’s column points out, an entire stadium has been built from scratch in less than that time. And quite frankly, it is pathetic that all that has been achieved in two years has been little more than a bit of rewiring and and a spot of sanding and varnishing.

The lack of progress in restoring this civic beauty to its former glory is a disturbing indication that the City of Cape Town has allowed a culture of complacency to creep in. As Kadalie’s story shows, the council’s claims of increased oversight, accountability and efficiency ring hollow in this instance.

Since the coalition that has ruled the city since 2006 came into power, there have undoubtedly been achievements. Finances, which had been in disarray, have been brought under control. Service delivery has tripled. And private-public initiatives have made enormous strides in reducing crime in the CBD and Khayelitsha.

But that is not enough. Cape Town is a city of vast inequality, a cauldron of simmering social problems that include crime, unemployment, excessive migration and a shortage of housing and services. The council would do well to stop resting on its laurels: if these issues are to be effectively dealt with then urgency, innovation and excellence are essential.

One only has to look to the Cape Town Stadium for further evidence that these qualities are sorely lacking. With SAIL Stadefrance abandoning plans to run the stadium for the next thirty years, the facility increasingly resembles a ratepayer-funded white elephant. The consortium calculated that the running costs of the stadium just didn’t make operating it viable (why it took until after the World Cup to figure this out is beyond me).

The council has decided to operate it on its own. This is shortsighted — council officials are not stadium experts: they ought to be running cities, not stadiums. The breakdown in negotations earlier this month between the city and SAIL Stadefrance leads to several questions. Why couldn’t an agreement be reached? And if the issues were completely unresolvable, why has this not been put out to tender again? Why are there no public discussions on how to ensure the stadium is sustainable and relevant for decades to come?

Cape Town may be South Africa’s best run city, but considering the shambolic state of so many of our other municipalities this is hardly something to be content with. If the DA is serious about proving it can offer a more principled and more effective alternative to ANC rule, it needs to redouble its efforts to match rhetoric with action.

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